Kayah’s Korner: A Low-income Student’s Guide to Navigating “Success”

Kayah’s Korner columnist Mikayah Parsons ’24 advises that students expand their interpretation of “success” beyond quantifiable products.

Kayah’s Korner: A Low-income Student’s Guide to Navigating “Success”
Mikayah Parsons ’24 encourages students to reconsider their notion of what success looks like. Graphic courtesy of Nina Aagaard ’26.

Anonymous asks, “Hi Mikayah! How do you practice self-love especially when it comes to feeling like you have the weight of being successful at Amherst College for your family and loved ones? At times, it feels like I exert so much pressure on myself especially when I think about all the family members that are looking up to me. As a FLI student, have you felt this way as well?”

Dear Anonymous,

I too have felt the many pressures of achieving “success” as a FLI student at Amherst. I’d like to offer you an ideological response to your question.

I recommend shifting your mindset. When I arrived at Amherst, I adopted certain beliefs that influenced the way I presented myself on campus. The conversations taking place around me reflected a jargon I didn’t possess and markers of wealth such as expensive coats or summer experiences. The environment felt like a pressure cooker of status that I felt alien to. I was determined to prove that I belonged here — I felt that I needed to justify my presence in the student body by doing something phenomenal. What I failed to realize was that I am already phenomenal. I don’t need to know you, Anonymous, to know that you are too. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.

The thing that we often have to communicate to ourselves is how many definitions of success exist. To get to Amherst, many of us bought into a system of beliefs that glorifies higher education and depreciates the very backgrounds we hail from. Therefore, our very conception of what it means for a FLI student to attend college entails positioning ourselves at an intersection of oppositional identities. We begin to view success as a funnel that eventually pours out into things such as influence and capital, stressing about grades and how they’ll affect career outcomes or graduate school applications.

At the same time, we remember examples of success in our lives prior to our arrival at Amherst. For many of us, that looked like insane levels of productivity — seeing our family members work multiple jobs or juggling several responsibilities ourselves. When these ideas of success converge, we’re left with an impossible definition of success that suggests our time at Amherst can only be justified by how much quantifiable product we produce —  how much capital we make or how productive we are. When you look at it like this, I hope it becomes clear to you why you might feel overwhelmed by a sense of duty to these definitions of success.

And so I ask you, Anonymous, to evolve your definition of success — to allow yourself room for grace in your conception of the world around you and how you see yourself fitting into it. Remind yourself that success does not have to be so quantifiable or limited. Remind yourself, too, of how complicated these definitions of success already are. When you close your eyes and imagine where you come from, whatever that may mean to you, remember the love you feel in your imagination. Find the experiences that make you feel an unmatched sense of love. With that image in mind, I encourage you to revise your definition of success.

Success, for me, is the impact I make in the world around me. I didn’t say how much impact. I merely said, “impact.” Having a conversation with a customer while I work the register at Frost Cafe is impactful. Calling my mother and offering her advice or receiving advice from her are also both impactful in different ways. Writing this column and sharing my experience with other students so they feel less alone is another form of impact. Whatever I do in my life, in order to feel fulfilled, I need to see myself connected to what I’m doing by creating this impact.

When you feel tempted to admonish yourself for a lack of academic output or for underperformance, I encourage you to practice grace. Ask yourself what you’ve done to make an impact in your personal life or someone else’s. Encourage yourself to find the things that give you a sense of fulfillment independent from the expectations of others. If you tap into the image of love or fulfillment discussed earlier, what do you see yourself doing inside it? Once you’ve answered that, begin to move the pieces of your life around those things — because those things are your needs, the things you need to thrive.

At the end of the day, grappling with your question will not end overnight. It’s an iterative process that requires a conscious effort to shift and adapt both your self-perception and your outlook on the world around you. It requires changing your mindset and exposing yourself to a variety of experiences that unlock that certain feeling.

I know that much of what I’ve written here feels intangible, but I encourage you to go after deconstructing your understanding of success by starting small and in several ways. Find things that make an immediate impact, even if the impact is an opportunity for self-care. Journaling helps me reflect on the places in my life I feel most fulfilled. Calling a friend or family member makes me feel an incredible sense of love. Taking a walk around campus helps me clear my mind and practice relaxation. The type of extracurricular activities I engage in speak to my values. Even the cheesy romantic comedies I watch to unwind reflect the elements I need to see in a given moment. I can’t prescribe you a specific combination of things because it looks different for everyone, but these are the larger ideas and the smaller first steps I ask you to keep in mind — to understand, to apply, to complicate — as you imagine yourself at Amherst College.

Lastly, Anonymous, I’m proud of you. Thank you so much for reaching out.

Until next time,


Kayah’s Korner: A Low-Income Student’s Guide To Navigating Amherst is an advice column for first-generation low-income students. Do you have a question? Ask here!